George Floyd’s last words, as police officers pinned him to the pavement in the American city of Minneapolis:
“I can’t breathe,” repeated multiple times.
“Mama … please … I’m about to die.”
“Please don’t kill me.”
By now, the world knows what happened to Floyd on May 25. A Minneapolis police officer — Derek Chauvin, 44 — faces several charges relating to his death. Chauvin pinned down Floyd for eight minutes and 46 seconds. In those last two minutes, Floyd was no longer responsive. As he lay dying, Chauvin kept the pressure on his head and neck with his knee, his hand in his pocket the entire time. Floyd lay face down, handcuffed. He was pronounced dead at the hospital. Tests found that he was positive for Covid-19, but asymptomatic — the coronavirus had nothing to do with his death, an autopsy found.
In the days that followed, massive protests swept across American cities. Black Lives Matter, the protesters said, rattling off a roll call of black Americans who were killed in recent years by police: Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, whose last words, also captured on a cellphone video, were, “I can’t breathe.”
The United States is in turmoil. More than 400-million people are unemployed, most as a result of the pandemic. There have been more than 100 000 Covid-19-related deaths (black Americans have been the hardest-hit demographic). And yet the divisions and inequalities that have been so starkly illustrated over the past 10 days have their roots not in this new disease, but in centuries of discrimination.
“The faultlines ingrained in the DNA of American democracy are nothing new. And while jarring, neither the murder of George Floyd by a uniformed white police officer, nor the eruption of anguish that has followed, should come as a shock,” said Jeffrey Smith, a human-rights activist and founding director of Vanguard Africa. “Institutionalised racism and inequality, growing fissures between the haves and have-nots, and a political system that blatantly favours campaign finance over candidate quality have long tarnished America’s democratic standing.”
A dark history
One of these faultlines is the racism that has remained endemic to this country, even as it elected and then re-elected a black president, and despite its record as one of the most diverse countries in the world.
Thousands of black men ask themselves every day how to get home safely from work or survive a routine traffic stop. As part of bringing up a young boy into American society, each black household does a parent-teenager talk for their sons about how not to get yourself killed by a police officer.
The Minneapolis Police Department in particular has a dark history of not charging police officers for shooting black men, such as Jamar Clark (2015).
Professor Larry Cunningham, the director of the Center for Trial and Appellate Advocacy at St John’s University School of Law, rightly reminded journalists that the US “does not have one system [of criminal justice]. Instead, we have a system for all 50 states, plus the District of Columbia … each individual state having its own governments.” Murder is prosecuted at the state level.
And yet a failure to charge police officers appears to be a countrywide problem. Research group, Mapping Police Violence, said that police killed 1,099 people in 2019 — three each day in the US. Despite being only 13% of the population, black people accounted for 24% of the victims. No prosecutions have been brought in 99% of police killings in the period from 2013 to 2019, the group added.
Charges have now been laid against Derek Chauvin. His colleagues Tou Thao, J Alexander Kueng, and Thomas K Lane have also been charged with failing to prevent Floyd’s death.
On hearing news of the charges, Minneapolis and Washington DC protesters broke into a celebratory chant: “We got all four! We got all four!”
The gravity of the situation facing the US is highlighted by the public interventions of George W Bush and Barack Obama. Custom discourages former US presidents from commenting on their successors, but these issues are too serious to ignore. Bush made a unifying statement, while Obama went further, urging protesters to continue to make “the status quo uncomfortable”.
The current president, meanwhile, has been widely mocked for retreating to a bunker under the White House in the face of the protests in Washington, DC. But the reaction of President Donald Trump’s administration is more insidious: not only has the government mobilised the National Guard and put the military on standby, but it has also sought to blame foreign adversaries for the country’s troubles.
National Security Adviser — singled out China, Iran and — somewhat bizarrely — Zimbabwe. He accused Zimbabwe of taking pleasure in America’s woes. “There will be a response. It will be proportional. This is not something that our adversaries are going to get away with for free,” he said.
Also ranged against the Black Lives Matter protests are a number of well-armed shadowy white nationalist militia groups. It has been notable that despite patrolling in public places in uniforms and rifles, and even invading public buildings, these groups have been treated with kid gloves by the police.
That’s exactly the kind of systemic inequality that the Black Lives Matters protests are designed to challenge — and it shows why, even if this round of protests dies down, it won’t be long before black Americans and their allies will take to the streets again.